LectureHop: Chomsky Waxes Conceptual

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Noam Chomsky stormed campus yesterday with a lecture double-header. Bwog commences its in-depth coverage with the linguist’s more academic engagement. Below, Linguistics major Sara Maria Hasbun reports on deep thoughts.

Noam Chomsky isn’t exactly known for his engaging lectures, but even so, he packed the theatre of the Casa Italiana by 2:45 for a 4:00 booking yesterday. His lecture was titled, The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?”; the most entertaining line was the first sentence:  “For those of you anxious to hear the punchline, if you have something else to get to, the answer is, ‘Everything.’”

The event, sponsored by the Heyman Center for the Humanities, was hyped as a linguistics lecture, though it turned out to be something more closely approximating a history and theory of the academy. Chomsky delivered his remarks straight from a pre-written paper, complete with awkward gaze-shifting from paper to audience. But of course, this was Chomsky. So we made do.

While his political views and loud criticism of the American government have made Chomsky a household name, the Pennsylvania-born academic became famous for developing an entire field of linguistics called “generative grammar”, a theory that claims that language is an innate, and uniquely human, ability, as well as claiming that all the languages of the world are inherently based on the same innate syntactic structure. 

Yesterday’s lecture spanned the history of scientific breakthroughs and ideologies, focusing especially on the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s and its mindset-shattering consequences. Chomsky explained the how the “hard problem” has shifted over the years. “Movement” used to be the hard problem, he told the audience, until physics and medicine came along.  Now “consciousness” is the problem that philosophers and neuroscientists are struggling to analyze. Chomsky warned, however, that academics should never move on to the next step before mastering the previous one. Despite the fact that academic disciplines are constantly being reinvented intellectuals often take for granted the firmness of the ground they build their theories upon. He quoted from Galileo – “We must refrain from futile toil…” – and cited Bertrand Russell’s dismissal of the idea that world might be made “intelligible.”

But, Chomsky was perhaps most eloquent when finally made the point in his own words: “Do people think? Well, that’s like asking if submarines swim. They do, if you call that swimming. What do you call thinking? Can a human fly? No in English, yes in Japanese…” We can never take what is meaningful, or meaningless, for granted.  “We have to be as agnostic as Bertrand Russell should have been.”

Listening to his lecture, one got the curious feeling that the wizened academic was looking back on his days as a linguist and putting a disclaimer on his many works, works that are still causing such disputes across the field of linguistics.  Indeed, in the first page of his book On Language, Chomsky justifies his departure from his original field: “Critical analysis in the ideological arena seems to me to be a fairly straightforward matter as compared to an approach that requires a degree of conceptual abstraction. For the analysis of ideology, which occupies me very much, a bit of open-mindedness, normal intelligence, and healthy skepticism will generally suffice.”

Tracking down truth in theory may be discouraging; working for practical improvement doesn’t have to be.

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  1. Owain Evans  

    "though it turned out to be something more closely approximating a history and theory of the academy"
    It was more like a very broad outline of a philosophy of intellectual investigation. In other words, Chomsky was saying how he thinks 'science' (construed in the broadest sense to include the hard sciences, the social sciences, and analytic philosophy) should be done.

    "Chomsky warned, however, that academics should never move on to the next step before mastering the previous one."
    This is wrong. Chomsky stressed that scientists should be beholden to reductionist programs. For example, people studying the mind shouldn't try obsessively to explain the mind in terms of more basic neuroscience. Instead, they should try to find regularities and rules that explain how the mind works, and not worry about whether the rules can be phrased in the terms of more fundamental sciences. This is the sort of project Chomsky has himself conducted in linguistics.

    Overall, the talk was hard to follow and often seemed plain incoherent. Straying far from his fields of expertise, Chomsky lacked clarity and insight. It was a disappointing showing.

  2. wait  

    evans...the first critique isn't any different from what Sarah is saying...besides the fact that she simplifies the matter for a short Bwog post and you use multi-syllabic words. and the second is true, in addition to what what Sarah said, not instead of.

    • owain evans  

      The fact that she simplifies doesn't mean that I can't elaborate. In any case, I think it was a good short review of a lecture that was very difficult to review (because of its incoherence and lack of clarity). So no hard feelings.

  3. Alex  

    Computers think - submarines swim argument actually coined by the computer scientist Edsgar Dijkstra, not by Chomsky.

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